EXCLUSIVE: Levin On Relaunching First Comics

They say in comics, no one stays dead for long. And while that expression typically applies to characters and fictional franchises, it seems that in 2011 it will also appear to comics companies -- specifically '80s and '90s indie house First Comics.

Originally founded in 1983, First was one of a wave of companies that grew along with the founding of the Direct Market of comic shops. Over its initial nine-year run, the publisher became a clearing house of well known mainstream comics talents to pitch projects that they could never pull off within the normal superhero universes of DC and Marvel while also maintaining a strong control of their own copyrights. Highlight titles from that era include Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg!", John Ostrander and Timothy Truman's "Grimjack" and Jim Starlin's "Dreadstar" amongst others. With the publisher eventually closing up shop in 1991, fans were surprised when panel announcements for this year's Comic-Con International included an event for a reformed First including creators Bill Willingham and Joe Staton (Robot 6 spoke with Editor Larry Young about the launch here.)

To get the full scoop on what's next for First Comics, including how the company's history will play a role in its future, what kinds of titles and formats fans can expect in its 2012 launch, how Hollywood does and doesn't connect to what they'll do and more, CBR News reached out to First co-founder and current point man Ken F. Levin.

CBR News: Ken, you're at the forefront of the rebirth of First Comics, but there are a lot of comic fans who don't know you as well as some of the creators out there. To start, what can you tell us about your original involvement with First and what your main focus has been since the company folded in the early '90s?

Ken F. Levin: I was a co-founder of First Comics. After we and several other companies were purchased and made part of a "roll up" conglomerate which they took public and all of us were gone, I began to be asked by individual creators if I would work with them on their individual projects, or to represent them generally, and that's what I began to do. In the course of that, I've done a lot of development, gotten a lot of things published, while my focus when I teach or lecture has principally been to preach the gospel of comic art story telling as a worthy art form, and of the comic book creator as a talent worth at least giving a courtesy listen to if you happen to be in Hollywood and developing a film or television show from his or her book.

First Comics didn't fold, it just stopped publishing new original material -- First Comics has set up a number of publishing deals with other publishers in the recent past, and I've been involved in some of those, for both reprint editions and new stories of "GrimJack" and of "Jon Sable Freelance," and for a new edition of "SHATTER" to name just three. At some point, there came an opportunity for a change of ownership that has let the company resume full operations, and I agreed to be part of that to a certain extent. But my focus is mostly on working with comics creators whom I personally like and trying to make happen whatever they'd like to make happen.

One thing we know you've been working on of late is the Hollywood work you've done over the past few years -- helping bring properties like "Painkiller Jane" and "The Amazing Screw-On Head" to the small screen amongst some other deals. Why, in general, are you looking to go back to comic publishing? Is there a Hollywood component in your plan for First now?

The reason I was willing to spend more time now than before on publishing is that we were finding it increasingly difficult to find publishers who were willing to and could afford to publish "creator owned" books, and of the few that were, many wanted what we felt was too much in order to do it. So I looked for other publication avenues for A-List folks. I had been working with Alex Grecian ("Proof") on a terrific graphic novel project of his called "The Yard," and I spent three days in meetings with some of the best New York book publishers who have been saying they want to get more into graphic novels. I had six different projects with me, and none of them was buying anything; they say they want to do graphic novels, but they don't really get them, don't know how to sell them and can't convince their marketing departments to publish them. They all liked the pitch and treatment for "The Yard," and yes, if we'd go get forty or fifty spec art pages, it had a chance on a second time around, but even that wasn't assured.

I turned to my lit co-agent, Seth Fishman of Gernert Company and said you've got to be kidding me -- if this were a novel, it would have sold in a heartbeat, wouldn't it? He said, "I think so, too." So we talked to Alex about taking the material and writing a novel instead. Alex is a terrific writer, and when he finished the novel's first draft a few weeks ago, we sent it to the top thirteen NY editors at the top publishing houses, and seven of the thirteen started bidding on it. Marysue Rucci of Penguin Group's G.P. Putnam's Sons bought "The Yard" to be a 2012 summer blockbuster novel for release in July next year -- a terrific fast track commitment by one of the best editors there is at one of the best hardcover imprints there is. So the world lost a great graphic novel; it will get a terrific series of novels instead.

Right after that, Matt Sturges and I were talking about a wonderful new comics project he'd come up with and wanted to develop, and I couldn't find a publisher who would entertain it and be willing to pay the freight without us giving up not only a huge chunk of equity but also actual control over the property if Matt decided he didn't want to write it any more. At that point, the idea of having a creator-friendly publishing imprint where I might actually be able to get some of my guys' new stuff published sounded like an answer, rather than a folly.

As to the Hollywood piece, years ago I had the good fortune to work with my friend Max Allan Collins in getting his "Road To Perdition" made into the film, which changed the paradigm of how Hollywood perceived comic art story content ("Wait, it isn't all capes and tights?"), and since then to set up or help produce a handful of television and a couple dozen film projects, including of the ones (hopefully) taking their next step soon -- "Preacher," "The Red Star," "Couriers," "Monster Attack Network" and "The Boys." Without putting too fine a point on it, I tend to gravitate towards works that I can envision on the screen, large or small; I know exactly why they'll work there, I understand their strengths and I see ways to effectively deal with any aspect that doesn't translate into another medium. If I can't see that instantly from the go, I'm probably not involved with the property in the first place. I've been told often my reputation is that I'm always allied with such great stuff, that I am supposed to have terrific commercial instincts, but I think I just find things that I really like more often than I see something in a book project that others don't see; it's the reason I seem to work well with these fantastically talented creators, because I genuinely appreciate what they do, but at the same time won't tell them something I don't believe is so. I'm a lousy yes man and an even worse sycophant. So, for various reasons, it is highly likely that anything which First Comics publishes for one of my folks will have at least some of my friends in Hollywood sitting up and taking notice every time.

But I confess, I love books more than I like adapting books into another medium, so whether any or all of them ever get optioned for a different medium adaptation, I want each title to be one I'm as proud to have in my bookcases as I am of "Wanted" or "Hellboy" or "Road To Perdition" or any other film or TV project I was involved with.

During its original run, First had a lot of high profile series, from "Dreadstar" to "Grimjack" to "American Flagg!" and more. What, in your mind, was the overriding principal that guided that line of books, and what are you looking to keep and change from that original run?

I am a big fan of creative energies. The creative energies that we had at First Comics, that Mike Gold and Rick Obadiah and Rick Felber and Ralph Musicant and Joe Staton brought with them, and that Rick Oliver and Alex Wald and everyone I else that I knew there after that replicated -- that was perhaps the one thing which people who came to First Comics picked up on immediately and fed upon. The First Comics publishing brand has always meant that talent was encouraged to be creative, to not worry about how something has been conventionally done to that point, or even whether it would be commercial as a book. At First Comics, the idea was always to find the space between the notes. Got a great premise that no one else will buy, even though you are clearly a person who could pull it off? First Comics was the place you wanted an introduction to. So today, if you get to work with some of your favorite people, and they just happen to be some of the most talented people at this art form in the whole world, you've a chance to put out some pretty terrific books and have a really good time doing it.

I know the First Comics people expect. They'll get inundated with proposals, and yet they've almost filled up their publishing dance card for the initial 18 months. I wouldn't expect First Comics to ever be in the top ten of comic book publishers by volume. But having the First Comics series legacy in its DNA, that's a nice place to start a relaunch from, and if you could be involved today with a company that would put out books or series anything close to what First Comics did from its inception -- "WARP!" and "Starslayer" and "GrimJack" and "Jon Sable Freelance" and "Badger" and "American Flagg!" and "Dreadstar" and on and on it went -- that would be sensational, wouldn't it? Not much you'd change there. Which is one of the reasons why you'd jump on the chance to have an Angela Rufino or Susannah Carson edit someone's book, or a Larry Young do anything he wants to -- the closest thing the industry has given us to the First Comics' ethos has been Larry and Mimi Rosenheim's AiT/Planet Lar. So I don't think First Comics is looking to drive the boat any differently than before, except my guess is you will see more graphic novels than First Comics did originally, since that form has produced so many terrific books, and so many creators have become facile with and enjoy working in that art form.

Let's talk about the comics! Your San Diego panel has some folks who originally published books with First, like Joe Staton and Nick Cuti. While some of the classic titles have moved on to other publishers over the past few years, are there any recognizable titles we can expect out the gate?

Yes; actually, what got me involved in the relaunch was that Joe and Hilarie Staton and I have been talking for years -- literally years -- about how astonishing it was that there was no top quality full color edition of Joe's and Nick Cuti's "E-Man," the title First Comics bought as one of our first acts when we heard that Charlton was going out of business. Over the years, Joe and Hil would work so hard with a publisher, get close and then the publisher's management would change, or they'd say maybe we should do this without new color or in black and white(!). Finally, when the First Comics publishing relaunch was being discussed, I said I would only do it if that was in the initial book offerings, and only if it was done right. What I got back was, "OK, how's this: Joe and Hilarie and Nick get to make all the production decisions, Alex Wald will do all the new coloring he can fit into his schedule (you couldn't do better, could you?), and the book will be over 200 pages in absolute top quality format." Oh. Well, yes. I guess that might be acceptable. It's on the presses now for a limited Comic-Con run, which the printer promised will be delivered to San Diego at least three hours before the First Comics' panel at 5pm Thursday, July 21, along with a signed and numbered limited edition, as well.

"Badger" is almost an identical story, it's just a little further off down the road because it's all new stories; if you read Mike Baron you realize that there's hardly anyone in comics who writes with the bite and humor and brilliance that Mike Baron does, and when Capital Comics went out of business, First Comics bought that title too. But they wanted to try to find an art team today that could match Mike Baron's writing, panel for panel, and good luck with that one, and then I had the great good fortune to find a sliver of a gap in the Fillbach Bros. schedule and I said guys, would you have any interest in doing "Badger..." -- and I never got to finish the sentence. So that's in the works for 2012. Mike's first issue's script just cleared editorial this morning and it's as good as anything he's ever done. If First Comics fans don't know the Fillbach Bros. yet, they will be grateful that First Comics gave them the chance for an introduction.

The first of two original graphic novels that will be available in limited edition preview versions at San Diego is "Frickin' Butt-Kickin' Zombie Ants." Jimmy Palmiotti always tells me that figuring out the title is 50% of the battle, and I love that title, but the book, by Steve Stern, is so much better than the title. The only bad thing about that title is the press run is so small, I'm not sure there will be any left by Saturday. You'd buy that book just for the Fillbach Bros.' cover, though they did all the interior art too. I think the staff is trying to get a poster of the cover made to have available for when the book sells out.

Speaking of which, when do you anticipate new First comics will be making their way to shops? How big of a launch are you looking at to start?

My understanding is that the initial First Comics titles will be made available to retailers in November, and that First Comics will be directly marketing to comic book stores rather than go through distributors. Retailers at Comic-Con will be able to arrange for books at the First Comics booth, #2001 (mnemonic "Space Odyssey" -- it's the only booth number I remember). Their press runs aren't so many that they can't deal with stores directly or that stores can't deal with them directly. Fortunately not my problem; they'll get it figured out.

Of course, it seems you've already brought in some folks to work on the publishing end of things including Larry Young, original First staffer Alex Wald and Susannah Carson, who's listed as working as your YA editor. Overall, what kind of business do you hope to build with these people? In other words, in what ways do you hope the new First Comics will function in the traditional sense as a monthly comic book publisher versus as a graphic novel house or a digital comics operation?

No idea. Fortunately, also not my problem.

Lastly, what can readers expect to see and learn at the San Diego panel?

First Comics is bringing twenty nine comics creators to the convention as their guests, last count I heard, so one thing they'll learn is who some of those people are. No one is coming to merely be part of a reunion -- they're all in. People will just have to listen fast since First Comics' panel only gets 55 minutes so the panel's guest time breaks down to getting about 31 seconds each; they'll learn some of the plans the company has for the first 10 months; they'll learn what free stuff each person who attends the panel will be given, because they'll each get it; they'll find out how First Comics, which was always enamored of cutting edge technology, is doing it again at the San Diego Comic-Con; they'll learn that people who come to the First Comics' panel will receive golden tickets which will make them the only ones who get to go to certain exclusive signing times for some of First Comics' top creators; and maybe they'll learn why so many people are so completely jazzed about the thought that First Comics publishing is back.

Look for more from First Comics at Comic-Con International 2011.

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