Hernandez Discusses Aspen Comics' 10-for-10 in 2013

This year, Aspen Comics celebrates its 10 year anniversary. Founded in 2003 by beloved comic artist Michael Turner, the company's name derived from the main character in the publisher's flagship series, "Fathom." Although Turner passed away in 2008 after a prolonged battle with cancer, the company has continued carry on his legacy, publishing a library of books featuring action, fantasy and adventure. To celebrate its decade of existence, Aspen has enacted a 10-for-10 promotion for 2013, publishing 10 new #1 issues in 10 months, all with a cover price of one dollar. While five of the new #1s come from Aspen's past catalogue, the other half of the titles are brand-new series.

Aspen recently kicked off its advertising campaign featuring the 10 female leads for each of its books, and CBR spoke with Editor-in-Chief Vince Hernandez about the promotion, the potential for 10-for-10 to help Aspen reach new readers and the possibility of bringing in more female creators for the publisher's female protagonist-led library.

CBR News: Vince, before we start talking in detail about some of the new 10-for-10 titles, I'd like to touch on the teaser Aspen released for the promotion. How was the decision made to feature the series' female leads in such a prominent fashion?

Vince Hernandez: We didn't start out intentionally to make it a full-on, all female piece; it just organically worked that way. I won't say we sat down and said, "Hey, we're going to do a poster with ten females." Ultimately, a lot of times these things are decided by what we think will be the best character for the piece, what we thought would make for the strongest composition of the overall poster. When we did this 10-for-10 poster, looked at each title, looked at the main characters for each series and said, "Which character do we think visually will be the most striking for the piece and which will be the most recognizable?" For the five returning 10-for-10 books, we wanted to make sure we had a character that would be recognizable -- for example, Aspen Matthews or Grace from "Soulfire" or Iris from "Executive Assistant." Our fans, when they see those characters, they know instantly what to expect. So we definitely wanted to put those on the returning ones.

For the new ones, honestly, the main characters are all female, so it worked out well for us. When we got the list down to the characters we'd like to show, looking at it, we realized there were one or two male lead choices, but we ended up making it all a female [poster]. There is one male on the poster, but he's a creature. Not really a human guy. Even the little cat from "Charismagic" is female. A lot of times, with our audience, that's become a thing with us. They know a lot of our characters are strong female leads, and we really wanted to play that up. That was a big part of our first ten years in the industry -- we've definitely been a staple for female characters and strong female leads. I can't think of another publisher that has this many that are on the forefront of our books.

How will these new characters and their books delve into unexplored territory for the publisher?

You know, it's different for each one. I'm really emphasizing when I talk about it that these books are all so different in terms of the themes and genres they're based in. We're hoping, obviously, that all these characters will endear themselves to our fans as much as, say, Aspen or Grace, but a lot of the 10-for-10 is really about experimenting and what takes off. I'm not going to sit here and say that all ten are going to be bestsellers and just knock it out of the park -- I don't know that. It's just about putting it out there and seeing what they can do. We felt like these characters really fit in to the mold of our Aspen females, but we also like the fact that none of them are alike. There's no particular character that I would say connects to Iris or connects to Aspen in "Fathom."

There is one character in "Trish Out of Water" that, without revealing too much, has a connection between that character, that story and "Fathom," which readers will find out. We're pretty excited about that.

On that note, two of the 10 books Aspen launches this year are new versions of Fathom and Soulfire. What was the impetus to relaunch these books with a new look?

The team that did volume four of "Fathom," David Wohl and Alex Konat, we were really happy with. We're using them for "All-New Fathom." "All-New Soulfire" will have a new creative team.

That came about through a lot of different elements. It's been fifteen years since "Fathom" came out in 1998 and quite honestly, a lot of those fans have grown up and they've grown with the property, but there's a whole new generation of readers and kids and teenagers that know nothing about "Fathom." For them to understand the series, we're talking four volumes, I think six or seven miniseries over a ten year span. There's a lot of mythology and backstory now where I wouldn't envy a new reader who had to jump in. We wanted to do something that was really new reader-friendly, a jumping on point. We've said before in past series that it's a great jumping on point, but literally, we are starting over. Not necessarily story-wise, where it's going to be a DC New 52 where everything has just been erased, but we really built these two stories to be as reader-friendly as possible. I would say it's the most definitive jumping-on point for "Fathom" if you're looking to get into the series or if you're a brand-new reader. We're taking all the elements that made her popular and moving forward with a brand-new direction. It's all about rebranding it. It's very new, it's fresh and from what I've seen so far, people are going to be excited, I think. We tried to keep the spirit of what Michael did in "Fathom" and "Soulfire," keep that skeleton of what people love, but do something new for that. That's why we threw the "All-New" tag in front of it.

Let's talk a bit about some of the other titles you have planned -- some of them, like "Shrugged" Vol. 2, have been on the back burner for a while, but there are also five new books launching this year. What can readers expect from these books? How do you plan to make them appeal to those who may not have picked up an Aspen book before?

We've thought a lot abut these five new properties. We have a bunch of creators and ideas that were on our plate for what to do in the next couple years. With these five, we really thought they offered the greatest variety of different genres, themes and styles for different properties -- but at the same time, when you read them, you know they're Aspen titles that have a level of quality our readers are used to. One of them is a Cyberpunk book that takes place in the future, so you have a lot of futuristic elements. It's much more sci-fi heavy. One of them is more along the lines of a "Y: The Last Man" catastrophic epic story. One of them is a high school, adolescent story that plays on elements of action, adventure and comedy. That book in particular is going to be a departure for us for a lot of reasons -- a lot of people know us for fantasy and action/adventure stories. This is more grounded, like a "Strangers in Paradise" story with some supernatural elements, which I'm excited about.

We also have one title based on genie mythology. It sticks to our action/adventure/fantasy motif we built over the first decade because it's different than anything we've ever done. We've actually released the images for this book "Jirni." The reaction we've gotten has been awesome. The artist, Paolo Pantelena, draws a lot like Joe Madureira -- everything is sweeping character designs and exotic locations. There's a wide buffet of different things for any new reader to jump into. Obviously, the biggest thing about these 10-for-10 titles is that each #1 is only a dollar, so we want to make it an easy choice for a reader if they're on the fence. At that price, it seems like kind of a no-brainer. We're confident when you pick it up that you're going to like it.

It's all a big experiment for us. We've never done a project this big for this long, for 10 consecutive months. I can't even tell you I know how it's going to turn out, but so far, based on the early reviews we've gotten on the first book, "Legends of the Shadow Clan," we're pretty much blown away by the numbers.

I want to touch on something you mentioned, namely the idea of variety in your series. Obviously, you plan to diversify your line and show readers the length and breadth of what Aspen has to offer. While a number of creative teams have yet to be announced, I think it's assumed by a lot of readers that Aspen mainstay writers like David Wohl and J.T. Krul are going to be writing these books. Has there been any talk of bringing in new writers or artists, new creative talent, to help launch these titles?

Absolutely. With 10-for-10, a lot of the properties are about celebrating the first 10 years of Aspen, so a lot of the creators and writers on those particular books are definitely familiar faces. That's not to say the writers and artists themselves, the colorists -- I'd say 90% of them are brand-new talent that we've never worked with.

By the same token, while the 10-for-10 is our biggest priority for the year, it's not the only new properties we'll be releasing. We're taking the properties in our part of the 10-for-10 and using them as a springboard for new writers, new creators and we have some things -- I can't reveal any of the names right now, because we're going to be announcing in a couple months -- but beyond the 10-for-10 we have a bunch of new writers that we're looking at. There are some pretty big names in the industry that have seen what we've done over here and they like the style of what we do. We've been talking to them for a while and we agreed on some properties we thought would work well with our line. We're going to be releasing those as well come summer 2013.

We also have two crossovers: a "Fathom" one and an "Executive Assistant" one this year, so there's no shortage of properties even beyond the 10-for-10. We're going all out.

Aspen is obviously known for its female protagonists, as we've discussed. With this 10-for-10 initiative and the opportunity to diversify Aspen's line, has there been any discussion about bringing on more female writers and creators for Aspen's books?

There has and there hasn't. As an editor myself, and a writer, I take that with a good deal of reality versus a grain of salt. The reality is, at the end of the day, we want the best creator or writer who will do the best job. Whether that's a male or a female, to me, ultimately it doesn't matter at the end of the day.

That being said, I understand that we do a lot of strong female protagonists and there is an element to having a female writer or creator on these properties that appeals not only to fans, but it appeals to me. I think there's a side of that writing and a side of that story that only they can tell, based off their own experiences.

So, it's definitely something we've thought about. We worked with a few females this past year, actually -- Amanda McMurray wrote one of our one-shots. Off the top of my head, I can't remember the other ones we'd done this year, but there have been a number of women creators that we've worked with in the past and we're definitely on the lookout for more.

On the art side, I would say pound per pound for who we are as a publisher and the amount of books we've put out, our percentage of female artists on our books is pretty major right now. I can say we have five or six pencillers that are female right now working on a regular series for us.

Like I said, at the end of the day, it's basically [a question of] who can do the best job. That's who we'll hire, whether it's a male or female creator. But I do recognize that we would like to get a little more variety, and I think a female creator would add a different perspective, especially for the types of characters we do. It's something we've been looking into -- I won't say it's something we've been making a full-on, straightforward approach toward, saying we want to hire more females -- I think that would actually be the reverse of the gender problem we're having right now. At the end of the day, we look for the best writer, but I won't lie -- if there's a great female talent out there, we're always a little more interested to see if they want to come join us. There's a lot of really great female writers right now that we'd love to work with.

One of the interesting parts of the 10-for-10 initiative is the "Awaken Skies"/"Overtaken" choice in August. You've had some experience with audience participation for "Idolized." Is that a part of why the choice was offered as a vote?

Yeah, that played a little part of it. A lot of fans won't remember, but our very first series, "Soulfire," was decided on a vote as well. It was between "Soulfire" and another book, "Ekos," that took place in "Wizard Magazine" way back in 2004. We actually held a voting process, and "Soulfire" ended up winning. We wanted to take that approach, since it was our tenth anniversary, and do something similar to that. Obviously, we did the "Idolized" character voting last year, and that was a big success for us. It really helped raise the awareness of the book. We figured, why not do it for one of the 10-for-10? Our owner and president Frank Mastromauro had these really wonderful ideas for two properties, and they were completely different. "Overtaken's" very much a sci-fi, outer space type of story, while "Awaken Skies" takes place on Earth and is more grounded in reality, but there's this fantastic element to it. They're very different. At the end of the day, we were happy with either of them, so we decided to leave it up to the fans. We like to do that, we like to get the fans involved. They're responsible for our success more than anybody. To give them the opportunity was a win-win for everyone.

Another aspect of the initiative are the covers by J. Scott Campbell. What drove you to bring him on as part of 10-for-10?

We wanted to try different things with the 10-for-10. We're doing a bunch of incentives for the issues -- we have these Reserved Covers, where if you add them to your pullbox, you get them and you get a poster at the end. There's also the hand-drawn sketch covers -- these are all ideas that we won't take credit for, obviously. A lot of publishers have done these to great success. Valiant pioneered the Pullbox Incentive, and the guys over at Valiant have been very helpful, honestly, in giving us insight in how that stuff did. Fred Pierce was immensely helpful on giving us ideas on stuff that worked well for them.

We took that knowledge of what worked and what didn't and thought about what would be super awesome to do that fans would get behind to continue the momentum for issue #2. We threw around a bunch of ideas, and any time we throw around a bunch of ideas, Jeff's name comes up because everyone loves his work. Who doesn't love Campbell's stuff? For us, it was a no-brainer. He's done covers for us in the past, and a lot of those were the most iconic covers we've done in the past decade. It really came down to whether we could actually keep going for ten issues. I spoke with Jeff, gave him the whole rundown and he was totally on board for it. We have something up our sleeves -- all #3 issue covers will be drawn by Eric Basaldua, who we've never worked with before. He's made his name doing covers for Top Cow and a couple for DC or Marvel. Every fan we've talked to has said we've had to work with this guy. We finally got him on board for all the #3s. We're excited about it.

After speaking with Eric, he's known for -- not cheesecake covers, but definitely hot, sexy women covers, and after talking to him, we're stretching his creative boundaries. He said he's looking forward to doing something that's different, to making a name for himself in terms of, he can do these amazing covers not necessarily built on a woman and T&A. We're going all out on these covers and we have some cool ideas for #4, as well. The whole idea is to keep the momentum going and get people excited.

Looking past 10-for-10 to the rest of Aspen's line, what can you tell us about the projects you've got coming up?

We just met with a few creators in the past few weeks to nail down some of these new properties. I can tell you that fans who like our "Fathom" and "Soulfire" and "Executive Assistants" books, or really high-concept action/adventure, are going to love what we have to announce coming up this spring. We're doing a brand-new property and all I'll say is it's very futuristic. It's got futuristic fantasy elements and it's with a creator that we're 100% behind. We think the fans are going to love him. We already kind of know they do. I can say that we're announcing that property and we're talking to one of the industry's top writers about bringing one of his creations over.

This past year, I felt like we had a really good year just in terms of meeting our release dates and putting out new properties and finally getting past putting out a property that doesn't do well and we'd have to move it in another direction. This year, we really found what I think the audience was looking for. I won't lie, I look at other publishers. I look at Image, I see what they do and I see the praise they get, but on the flip side, I'm like, we've been doing that as well. We've been putting out brand-new properties that aren't licensed items or some re-imagining of a fairy tale. We definitely feel like there's a whole audience of readers in comics that don't know we're not just this cheesecake company. We don't put out T&A books -- we don't do any, actually.

It's always about the perception that we're trying to break. This last year, we moved past that, and a lot of fans have finally decided to take us seriously with the products that we've produced. I just look to capitalize on that in 2013. We're bringing on this top-flight writer, he's got his creator-owned coming out that we're excited about. We're hoping to build on the 10-for-10. Obviously, if we get all these new fans and these new readers, we're not going to blow it by going back to the old stuff that didn't work the first time. We're going to definitely try to capitalize on our new readership and introduce them to new worlds come the end of 2013.

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