It's a well known fact that the US comics market is dominated by super-hero comics target to a young teen market. While enjoyed by all ages, the target audience of these books is generally considered to be adolescent males. There are other sectors of the industry geared to a more mature audience, with books from Vertigo, Marvel's MAX line and most independents intended for adults. While those two audience groups have been served nicely in recent years, one area left very much behind has been the children's market. Only Archie, Bongo (publisher of "Simpsons" comics) and a handful of independent titles are intended for children. In years past you could count Disney as part of that group as well, but for almost five years Disney books have not been seen in this market. That is until now.
Starting in June of 2003 Gemstone Publishing and Disney Publishing Worldwide will bring back to comic books the classic Disney characters. Mickey, Donald, Uncle Scrooge and other Disney favorites will once again be featured in a series of monthly comic books to be published by Gemstone. "Walt Disney Comics and Stories" and "Uncle Scrooge Adventures" are the first titles to see print, with plans to expand the line shortly thereafter.
In addition to the Disney Titles, Gemstone Publishing is the home to "The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide," "Comic Book Marketplace" and an assortment of other niche magazines and guides. The company was formed by Diamond Comics Distributors President and CEO Stephen A. Geppi, who spoke with CBR News about this announcement.
"I'm a big believer in 'timing is everything' and while this deal could have been done sooner, I personally feel now, call me the eternal optimist or whatever, the timing was just better now than it had ever been," Geppi told CBR News Thursday when asked why the delay in launching this new venture. "All during the period that we were negotiating, if you will, while the intent was there to do a deal, I never had quite the same level of confidence that the timing was right. That said, we look at my situation now as it relates to having a distribution arm that services the book store market, vis-à-vis Diamond Book Distributors, recently formed, that gives me a whole lot more confidence about the potential success of this venture."
For Geppi, timing this launch to maximize its success is the crucial component to the venture. Previously Diamond did not have a book distribution arm to move this product outside the direct market which currently services comic books. With the creator of Diamond Book Distributors, Gemstone now has an avenue to travel down in order to get these books into mass market shopping centers where they'll find the best access to young readers, which Geppi feels is key to the health of the comic book industry.
"It's a business venture we hope will make us tons of money and all the good stuff that goes with business ventures, but in actuality, at the risk of sounding altruistic, the bottom line is I really believe, in the position I sit as the owner of Diamond Comic Distributors, that our industry is in dire need of some children's comics, and that this is an entry level opportunity for young kids to discover comics."
While Disney books haven't been seen in the States in recent years, they have continually been published in the European markets.
"The bad news is we've all be suffering without Disney comics for three years and four months," said Geppi. "The good news is they continue to be published by some of our favorite writers and artists in the European market and we are now able to benefit from that backlog that has built up in that market because, under the Disney license, all that material is available to me. While technically a reprint, it is brand new material as far as this market is concerned. Even the artists themselves are thrilled to see their stuff in English."
Fans of Duck artists William Van Horn and Don Rosa will be treated to material not seen before in the US market. Van Horn, best known for his 10-page sotries, and Rosa, best known for his epic adventures, will both seen their material printed in the US market. Additionally, more recent creators well known in the European market like Mouse creator David Gerstein and Duck creator Daan Jippes will also see their work published in the States
"I've already been in communication with David Gerstein," said Geppi, "and Jippes is another guy I personally think is a tremendous artist. Quite frankly, there's a large number of other artists that I didn't even know existed, who have been brought to my attention by Disney and as well as [European Disney publisher] Egmont, that I think people are going to be quite pleased to see how talented these people are."
And fans of legendary Ducks artist Carl Barks need not worry. There are plans to bring his work back to print as well.
"The Carl Barks legend needs to be preserved," said Geppi. "I know sometimes people will say, 'You know those stories have been reprinted to death!' You have to remember, Carl produced over 6000 pages of original art in his illustrious career and it takes a long while to publish that. So by the time the stuff has been republished it's hitting a whole new generation. That's the concept here.
"Remember, reaching children and getting them to become comic readers isn't just a matter of putting a four-color comic book in their hands with familiar characters and a bad story. In order to retain them the goal is to get them to pick up the comic books and when they pick them up they'll be enchanted just as we all were by the wonderful stories that Carl wrote and drew, as well as his modern day contemporaries, and hence we'll be able to keep them hooked, if you will, on comics."
While the Gemstone books will see a mix of material from the European market as well as classic reprints, Geppi and crew are looking to find a whole new generation of Disney artists for new, original work.
"We have the luxury of being able to get up and running, so to speak, with the benefit of new material constantly flowing because it hasn't been seen here, while we recruit and address potential new artists and writers who might augment this tremendous repertoire that's available to us."
For those who remember the work Gladstone Publishing did with the Disney books in the late '90s, Gemstone will be picking up where they left off, publishing the books in a prestige format with other formats coming.
"Initially we will be coming back with the 'prestige format' that Gladstone was doing at the end of their regime. In other words, the first couple of issues that will be solicited for June, 'Walt Disney's Comics and Stores' and 'Uncle Scrooge,' will look pretty much exactly like they did so that when you place them together as a collector they will be contiguous. Worst thing you can do to a collector is have a comic book run 800 issues one size and then change sizes in the middle of the run.
"As we gear up for the book store market, mass market if you will, we're coming to the conclusion that a format that is going to be very popular there, as we interview the Wal Mart buyers and people of that nature is, I don't want to call it digest-sized because that conjures up in a comic book readers mind the smaller, Archie size, but maybe more of a what CrossGen or TokyoPop is currently doing in the, let's call it pocket book size. So, the intent is to have a value pack kind of approach there. Wherein the prestige formats will pick up with the $6.95 cover price Gladstone left off with four years ago, we look forward to shortly there after getting these pocket book sized books out into the mass market as well as the direct market at a more value packed price point. Say, $4.95 with 128 or more pages."
Geppi told CBR News that Diamond is aggressively talking with major retail chains in an effort to get these Disney books on their shelves.
"Kuo-Yu Lang, our top guy at Diamond Book Distributors, has relayed to me in his preliminary discussions with the Wal Mart's, Costco's, Target's and Barnes and Nobles of the world that there's quite a bit of interest. One of the luxuries we have on this side of first publication is that we can solicit their input as to size and shape as it relates to their appetite for purchase orders. We feel confident that we are going to get a good response there and expect that they'll sell well."
Finally, Geppi has been overwhelmed by the positive response he's received by comic retailers and consumers since this announcement first made the rounds.
"Going into this I went in with a certain amount of trepidation because historically the direct market doesn't embrace children's comics, but given the absence of them for a time period there's come an almost universal recognition of the need for them. I've been getting letters and e-mails from some of my long time retailer friends indicating how excited they are about them coming back as well as the creators and of course the consumers."
For those interested in getting more information directly from Gemstone concerning their Disney publications, visit them on the Web at www.gemstonepub.com/Disney/.