The Secret of BOOM! Box's Success: Diverse, Hopeful Comics

Imprints are a tricky thing in comic book publishing. Pay attention to the industry long enough, and you'll see plenty that come and go after an initial burst -- or some stick around but noticeably divert from its original vision.

BOOM! Studios launched BOOM! Box in December 2013 with "The Midas Flesh" #1, from the team of writer Ryan North and artists Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. a href="/tag/lumberjanes">"Lumberjanes," from Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen, followed a few months later, and soon became the line's breakout hit. The stated goal of BOOM! Box upon its initial announcement was to "push the envelope with experimental content from some of the brightest, forward-thinking creators in comics today," and the books have remained consistent with that initial promise, with a robust line of original series from the Los Angeles-based publisher.

EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW: "Lumberjanes" #37

Now, with "Lumberjanes" entering its fourth year later this month with issue #37, and John Allison, Max Sarin and Liz Fleming's "Giant Days" hitting the issue #25 milestone this week -- fairly lengthy runs in the relaunch-happy comics market -- CBR talked in-depth with BOOM! Box founding editor (and "Lumberjanes" co-creator and co-writer) Shannon Watters and BOOM! Studios editor Dafna Pleban (editor of "Lumberjanes" and "Goldie Vance") about the importance of providing "joyful, gleeful comics" targeted at a diverse audience, along with a look at the recently debuted "Coady and the Creepies" from Liz Prince and Amanda Kirk, and the May-debuting "Misfit City" by the writing team of Kiwi Smiith & Kurt Lustgarten, and artist Naomi Franquiz. Plus, CBR has the first look inside "Lumberjanes" #37, by Watters & Kat Leyh, and artist Ayme Sotuyo.

"Lumberjanes" #37 cover
"Lumberjanes" #37 cover by Kat Leyh.

CBR: Shannon, Dafna, to start out, BOOM! Box has been around now for almost three and a half years, and a lot of imprints have come and gone in less time than that. Even BOOM! has had some trouble getting them to stick, but this one has. For both of you, from your perspectives, what do you see as what BOOM! Box has provided to the comics medium that was needed?

Shannon Watters: What we strive to do with BOOM! Box is provide really joyful, gleeful comics. Specifically, joyful, gleeful comics that are targeted not just at folks that are looking to show up and get the same old things that they've always gotten. It's a perspective that I think a lot of folks in indie comics, especially webcomics, have been trying to put forward for years and years, and all we're doing is attempting to amplify that for the mainstream comic book market.

Dafna Pleban: I think it also helps that it was, by accident or design -- and I think it's a little bit of both -- a bit of counter-programming to what was happening in the stores at the time. I think we got really good momentum with KaBOOM!, and the "Adventure Time" comics, that showed there was an audience that is looking for something that is all-ages in a sense that anyone could read it, but not necessarily dumbed-down as if it's only for kids. I think over time, other companies -- IDW as well, and DC and Marvel -- have been seeing that there's an audience for people who want to be able to share this with anyone, not just people who are up to the last 20 years of canon.

That started bringing in enough people to take a chance on something like BOOM! Box, which was a bit older than all-ages, also more different kinds of readers, like women and teens -- a more diverse audience that doesn't necessarily find a work that speaks to them in the mainstream space. I think we kind of lucked out. There's good stories to tell, there's stories that haven't been told a thousand times, and there was an audience that was already coming in for all this other good work that we and other publishers were doing, that were ready to try something new.

I'm sure you've experienced it on your end -- there are some great books that get overlooked all the time, and everything about them works. The artist works, the writers work, what they're trying to tell works. I can't count -- I think my favorite one recently was "Omega Men." You look at Tom King, and he blew up right after that, and it's not that it wasn't good -- it was amazing. It just hit at a point where people weren't paying attention. And I think that book's going to live on in trade. It's weird to equate "Omega Men," which is really dark and more adult-oriented, with "Lumberjanes," but I think it's a fair comparison to make. To some degree, we were really helped by people noticing at the right time, and telling their friends.

Watters: I said this a lot when we were getting the imprint off the ground: We wanted it to be kind of a clubhouse for everybody. We wanted it to be the cool kids' clubhouse that everybody could join. We wanted everybody to be a part of it. That continues to be a guiding principle today.

"Giant Days" #25 cover
"Giant Days" #25 cover by Max Sarin.

Certainly my guess is a big reason these books have been successful is that they're appealing to an audience that is growing, but has often been underserved by mainstream comics. Is that a deliberate focus with the line?

Watters: Absolutely, 100 percent. There are a million places in this town where you can be a sad boy telling a sad boy story. That's fine.

Pleban: I'm probably reading a lot of those!

Watters: That is the "mainstream." We all have been raging against the machine re: the New York Times Best-Seller list taking their graphic novel list out of commission. It is a damn shame, because it was such a valuable tool for telling everybody the truth, which is the books that people are reading are by women and marginalized creators, and telling stories that are not about straight white men. Literally, the biggest contingent of people reading comics today are young women. Raina [Telgemeier] has been at the top of the New York Times Best-Seller list for how long? Years. Dominating. Multiple books.

What we're talking about, we refer to direct market comic books as the "mainstream" comic book market, but that's nonsense. It is not the mainstream market. It's not. We are making the kind of books that serve the people that should have been served there for the last 10 years, and were not.

Pleban: The last time publishers remembered female readers exist was manga -- 10 years [ago] is actually the last time a huge amount of women were welcomed into comic shops; comic shops started stocking manga. I think we have this cultural forgetfulness that women read comics and make comics, because at the end of the day, if you don't make your space welcoming, if you stop offering the content, they're not going to show up. I think BOOM! Box is tapping into an audience that's hungry, and has been reading comics for ages.

I think you see that kind of genre reflected in the tone of BOOM! Box books. They tend to have the kind of -- I call them "extreme swings of emotion" -- that manga popularized. It helps give that whimsy to a medium that has been a bit navel gaze-y and serious for a couple years now.

Watters: Couple? Couple of years? Sure. Just a handful.

We're approaching creators and doing the comics that we like, as queer women in 2017. Ask us about our agenda in comics. We could talk forever!

"Misfit City" #1 cover
"Misfit City" #1 cover by Naomi Franquiz.

The New York Times Best-Seller list was such a good reality check to people in the direct market bubble. And in three and a half years of BOOM! Box, if you look back at the announcement of the line back in 2013, it's striking to me that it seems like it's remained very consistent -- it's grown, expanded, but that general mission statement appears to still be very much defining what a BOOM! Box release is. In what ways do you see the line as evolving, experiencing important growth, in that time?

Watters: I think as far as the mission statement, [it] has always been "make gleeful comics for everybody." But I do think we're narrowed our focus tonally to the kinds of comics we want to be making. Generally, they feature lady protagonists kicking ass in a variety positive ways. But that feels very derivative to reduce it to that.

It's hopeful to write stories that exist in that space, because it gives you strength. Because the real world is not like that, it gives you strength to read stories about people who are living in that world, and who are able to tell their stories in that safe space. I think it's very valuable and very important. We're going to continue to refine our mission statement, and continue to get better at things that are goals for us, in line with our mission statement. It's been quite a lovely few years, and I'm very happy with how it's gone.

For whatever reason, I feel like hopeful stories are uniquely important in 2017.

Watters: No kidding. No flippin' kidding. It's hard times to make hopeful stories. Thank goodness this train is already on the track.

Pleban: We tend, for the longest time, to tell limited runs. BOOM! Box has most of our longest-running books, outside of "Adventure Time." "Lumberjanes" is about to pass year four.

Watters: 36 issues. And it's sold something like 800,000 units in single [issues].

"Giant Days" is going into its third year, and "Lumberjanes" is going into in its fourth year, which is massive, that there's a market for that out there. They're being sustained.

Pleban: "Goldie [Vance]" is going into its second.

Watters: It's amazing.

Pleban: It's rare for a lot of independent publishers to have ongoing, universe stuff, and we feel comfortable in that space.

Watters: I think BOOM! Box has always been this way, but has developed even more so over time; a very character-driven imprint. I have a unified theory of character in monthly comic books: Nobody comes back month after month for super-duper involved plots. You have all these big companies with these amazing characters that have been developed over years and years and years, and they just drown them in these over-complicated events and plots.

The reason that people come back to something every week, or even why somebody watches a television show every week, or comes back month after month for a comic book, is because they like spending time with these characters. That's the thing we really feel strongly about at BOOM! Box. It matters less what Jo and April and Molly and Mal and Ripley are doing every month, because you enjoy hanging out with them.

"Coady and the Creepies" #1 cover
"Coady and the Creepies" #1 cover by Kat Leyh.

BOOM! Box has had big hits like "Lumberjanes" and "Giant Days," and also "Goldie Vance" and "Jonesy" as newer successes, but at the same time, it's not easy for any new concepts -- let alone an imprint that's solely new concepts. What are some of the challenges you've experienced with the line? We talked about how some series appear to have everything going for them, but don't find the audience they merit.

Watters: Obviously, any new series runs that risk. We try to engineer series that sell themselves. But obviously not every series is going to find a foothold or an audience that it deserves. However, I always feel like those series are learning experiences for both me and the creative teams, and if they touch someone the way that our mission statement wants people to be touched by our books -- if somebody is affected or inspired by a series, and has discovered it because it was out through BOOM! Box, then it's worth it. It is building a brand in a different way. Maybe we didn't have a ton of readers on a series, but that reader who showed up feels seen and understood that they don't in a lot of other contexts at a comic book shop, and that's somebody who is going to come back. That is somebody who is going to come back for the next series, and the next series, as long as we're doing our jobs right.

Launching a new series is always a challenge; always a gamble. But what I hope is that each series that we do continues to find a foothold -- a very strong foothold -- with some readers, and those readers trust us to be making content that feels true and relevant to them, and they'll be back for the next one.

It's always going to be a challenge. Every single part of it is a challenge. Comic book publishing is a horrible racket, and it's always a challenge -- but overcoming that challenge is a matter of self-examination, and learning from those experiences, and trusting that if you do honest, high-quality work, you will have touched someone and they will give you another shot.

Pleban: Also anxiety.

Watters: So much anxiety.

Pleban: I think what Shannon was able to do with BOOM! Box -- BOOM! Box was Shannon's baby, let's be clear about that -- is that it comes from such a specific point of view, and it's an unconscious specific point of view. You can sometimes see when someone's trying to tap into a zeitgeist, and it feels a little constructed, and it feels a little planned. I think what was helped with BOOM! Box is, Shannon just innately responds to people speaking their truth -- which sounds like a collection of phrases, but it's true. I think "Lumberjanes" is a very clear example of that. It helps that Shannon co-created it, but I can't count on how many years Shannon talked my ear off about "Baby-Sitters Club" and I could care less, but then I see what she responded to in "Baby-Sitters Club" unconsciously filtered into something like "Lumberjanes," and it makes 100 percent sense. I think every single book there you can tell comes from a place of, "This person has that story to tell, whether they realize it or not."

On that subject, in the three-plus year history of BOOM! Box, are there specific titles that maybe readers didn't check out as much as they should have, and should go back and take a look at?

Watters: I felt like Jake Lawrence’s "Teen Dog" should have gotten a zillion eyeballs on it. That's the most lovely, honest, beautiful little book. It was very much a passion project for me, bringing that on to the imprint. I feel like if it launched at BOOM! Box today, it would have a much higher readership than it did. Same with "Help Us, Great Warrior." Those are just two very intensely emotional honest and true and kind and powerful comics that I wish more people had checked out.

Let's wrap by taking a look at the newer books coming out this year -- Liz Prince has a new series from the line.

Watters: Yeah! We've got "Backstagers," which has been just such a lovely book for us. Again, just people telling their truth, like James [Tynion IV] and Rian [Sygh] just telling their truth. "Jonesy" is wrapping, Sam [Humphries] and Caitlin [Rose Boyle] kicking butt on that.

We've got the new Liz Prince series, "Coady and the Creepies." It's such a pleasure. It's one of those things, you don't expect it until it comes together. It's kind of a punk rock -- if you know Liz's earlier work, you're going to love this. It's very much her sensibility. It's "Josie and the Pussycats" meets "Scott Pilgrim" meets all of Liz's work over the years. It's supernatural punk rockers trying to complete a pin quest, but one of them is a ghost. It's just so fun and funny, and beautiful, and again, you just read it, and you're like, "I love these characters. I just want to hang out with them. Let's hang out every month."

Then we've got "Misfit City" coming out in May. It's going to be real good. If you’re a fan of very classic '90s teen movies, you'll really respond, I think, to this one. "SLAM!" is continuing, that's just lovely as heck. I love girl friendships -- I could just watch girls be friends all day long. As we've talked at length about, "Giant Days," "Lumberjanes" and "Goldie Vance," but I'm so proud of my little corner of the publishing world. I'm happy that people keep showing up for it. I really appreciate it.

"Giant Days" #25 is on sale this Wednesday, April 5. "Lumberjanes" #37 is scheduled for release on April 26.

"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page by Shannon Watters & Kat Leyh and Ayme Sotuyo
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page by Shannon Watters & Kat Leyh and Ayme Sotuyo
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page by Shannon Watters & Kat Leyh and Ayme Sotuyo
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page by Shannon Watters & Kat Leyh and Ayme Sotuyo
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page
"Lumberjanes" #37 interior page by Shannon Watters & Kat Leyh and Ayme Sotuyo
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