Throughout AiT/Planet Lar's existence, founders Larry Young and his wife Mimi Rosenheim have published acclaimed series, original graphic novels, and collected musings by such prominent creators as Warren Ellis, Brian Wood, Kieron Dwyer, Adam Beechen, and more. Taking its name from its first title--Young's "Astronauts in Trouble"--and a play on the B-52s song "Planet Claire" with the publisher's first name, AiT has grown from rather humble origins to celebrate its tenth anniversary in March.
CBR News spoke with Young about AiT/Planet Lar's history and future, as well as the state of independent publishing from 1999 to present.
AiT/PlanetLar began with the publication of Young's "Astronauts in Trouble: Live from the Moon," though the company's origin is a bit more complex. The series was produced by Young and Rosenheim and initially published by Rob and Steve Snell's Gun Dog Comics. "They were sort of like a mini-Image, in that we delivered 100% ready-to-go comics to them, but they published it, along with Eric Yonge's 'Gunner' and a few other things," Young told CBR. "I'd worked in advertising and marketing and promotions for sixteen or seventeen years at that point, and I'd worked as the Wise and Terrible Minister of Propaganda for Brian Hibbs's world-class comic store, Comix Experience, in San Francisco. But I didn't really know the ins-and-outs of comic book distribution, which the Snell boys did, so we all did the 'you got a stage, I got some chairs; let's put on a show' thing together."
Gun Dog Comics, though, turned out to be just a little too much diversification of enterprise for the Snells. "They had a thriving business in guns and veterinarian supplies (no kidding!) down south, and adding comics to the guns and dogs just seemed to be spreading them a little thin," Young said. "So we all decided that we'd continue to publish 'Astronauts in Trouble: Cool Ed's' #1 and the 'Space 1959' monthly ourselves. But it wasn't really 'self' publishing,' like those hard-working do-it-yourselfers like Terry Moore and Jeff Smith and Dave Sim and all; I was just the writer. In our first nine floppies, we had work from not just me but Charlie Adlard, Darick Robertson, Matt Smith, Kieron Dwyer, Brian Wood, Steve Weissman, John Heebink, and Matt Hollingsworth. I'm the weak link in that chain of talented bastards, I can tell you. So I sort of think of it as just straight-up 'publishing.'"
Young said that what became AiT/Planet Lar emerged from being at the right place at the right time, and that he drew early influence from Warren Ellis's COME IN ALONE column here on CBR as well as from Dave Sim's "Cerebus" letters pages throughout the '80s and '90s. "Dave would emphasize he was making money today from an idea he had in 1977," Young recalled.
Based on these early influences and encouragement from Ellis, Young saw his new publishing firm as a venue to publish original graphic novels and other material from a growing cadre of creators. "'Astronauts in Trouble' artist Charlie Adlard had a book with my good friends Alex Amado and Sharon Cho called 'Nobody' that had originally been published by Oni Press," Young explained. "They didn't want to go ahead with a trade paperback collection, and since Charlie and I had done a few projects together, it seemed an easy marketing thing to offer a collection of their book as well. And later on we had that great experience of all going up to Vancouver together for a weekend to watch them shoot a TV pilot based on 'Nobody.' Kind of a full circle thing."
Brian Wood's "Channel Zero" ultimately landed at AiT/Planet Lar through a similar but distinct progression, and that the project fell in well with his other activities. "Back-when, working for Hibbs [at Comix Experience], I had early access to the Diamond 'Previews' catalogue, and I remember sending Bri Wood a fan letter before the Image 'Channel Zero' floppies were even available, based just on the 'Previews' ad," Young said. "So after Bri went through his Image experience, and they sold out of the CZ trade and returned the rights to him, I told him I'd keep the thing in print as long as he wanted me to. I knew that Hibbs and [fellow retailer] Rory Root had sold ten percent of the Image print run, and both of those retailers were personal friends of mine. So I figured I was doing all the hustle and marketing for my 'Astronauts in Trouble' book anyway, why not hustle for 'Nobody' and my pal Bri with his 'Channel Zero' book at the same time? I thought that if I knew two guys who sold one out of ten copies of an Image book nationally, I knew enough retailers who respected my comic book outlook that I could turn them on to Bri Wood's work, too.
"And so like my Gun Dog experience, where 'Astronauts in Trouble' and 'Gunner' and all teamed up to make it seem like a line of books, that's what happened with 'AiT' and 'Nobody' and 'Channel Zero' at AiT/Planet Lar. And then Darick Robertson's 'Space Beaver,' and Slave Labor's 'Sky Ape' lads, and Dark Horse's 'The Foot Soldiers' all threw in, and pretty soon we're off to the races."
AiT's line-up of creators has changed quite a bit from those early years, with recent projects including a just-announced Vincent Gonzales graphic novel; Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman, and Nima Sorat's soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture "Monster Attack Network;" and Adam Beechen and Manny Bello's action baseball book, "Dugout."
Though this branching out and attracting new talent is certainly part of the natural evolution of a publishing company, CBR asked Young if readers might one day see more from Wood, Ellis, Dwyer, and company under the AiT/Planet Lar banner. "We had a blast working with those guys in the first five years, and we'd be happy to work with them again," he said. "But I'm not sure a small house like ours really has a 'line-up' of creators, you know? We're a Loose Association of Like-Minded Individuals; nobody's getting married or anything; Mimi and I'll just publish your book for five years."
Another notable change from the early days of AiT/Planet Lar may be Young's public persona. While Young was praised by fellow creators and industry insiders for his publishing efforts, he also became known for fights on various internet forums. "Our operating philosophy hasn't changed at all," Young said, though he admits that his own temperament may have mellowed over time. "Folks think since the thirteen bucks it costs for a copy of Adam Beechen's latest book from us is the same thirteen bucks you need to spend to buy the latest Adam Beechen book from DC that we're somehow comparable. And on one level, we absolutely are; AiT and DC are both committed to bringing you the maximum amount of entertainment you can get from a comic book page. But on the one hand, DC (while made up of a bunch of individuals who work really hard at what they do) is beholden to all sorts of corporate political machinations the likes of which I will never have to deal with; on the other, AiT/Planet Lar is just me and Mimi. That's it. Somebody on a message board might say 'DC SUCKS!' when they're upset with something, and who does that address? Nobody, really. The whole AOL/Time/Warner/Disney/Coca-cola/Whatever/Military-Industrial conglomerate isn't really impacted.
"But if someone on a message board said 'AIT SUCKS!' it was hard for me not to take that personally back-when, what with AiT being just me and my wife and all. And so I would try to expatiate my viewpoint, and sometimes I would be a little strident about it. But at the end of the day, back then or now, I was never interacting with the audience to just argue. I was always striving for mutual understanding. So, yeah; I've matured with my online interactions since the early days. I can't remember the last time I called somebody a douchebag, for example."
Though Young has developed AiT primarily as a graphic novel publisher, the company has made occasional forays into serialized comics, from the very beginning with "Astronauts in Trouble: Space 1959," with defining series like Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's "Demo," and more recently with Young's own "The Black Diamond." Given the shifting of the direct market over the past ten years, and Diamond's much-lamented new policies causing consternation in the indie comics world, CBR asked Young if some of the series that built AiT/Planet Lar could survived had they debuted today.
"I know the popular opinion is that Diamond's gone nuts, but they haven't radically changed the way they deal with publishers nor are making any 'demands.' They just said, 'Hey, it costs us this much to move your books around; you need to clear this bar for us to keep the lights on,'" Young explained. "I think in the current economic climate, it's completely understandable. And yes, 'Demo' would have met the present minimums. All of the monthlies we've published would have. $2,500 isn't that crazy; it's half of the Diamond accounts buying two copies of your $2.95 book. I don't think that's a nutty thing for Diamond to ask for the right to put your comic into retailers' hands.
"The risk of 'Demo' to us was more of a financial one, but I figured if Becky Cloonan had the stones to commit to drawing a 12-issue series, the least we could do is pay for it and market the hell out of it to make sure she got some fat royalties. And that worked out for everyone."
With the recent announcements that "Race to Witch Mountain" director Andy Fickman will be adapting AiT's "Monster Attack Network" to film for Disney and that former "Lost" producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach is hard at work bringing "Couriers" to the silver screen, we checked in with Young about the movie version of "Astronauts in Trouble," which has been rumored for some time. "There's always something going on with the 'Astronauts,'" he said. "Maybe one in five of our hundred books is in some level of option or development or production. Honestly, I sort of stay out of that and leave it to our Hollywood guys."
As to where AiT/Planet Lar is today and where it may be going, Young indicated the "slow and steady" approach that served him well in the early days is still in effect. "Mimi and I believe that a successful company is always true to the core reason it was founded, and like it says on the tin, we're here Making Comics Better," Young said. "Companies that get too far afield of their core competencies fail, so we keep focused on offering superior quality and entertaining comics from passionate, professional creators with good stories to tell. As to new projects, we look for books that we want to read. Given that the two of us have a pretty broad sense of what's entertaining, we have a wide range of stories."
With the "Making Comics Better" mantra in mind, AiT/Planet Lar's selection of titles becomes even more important. "Each book we put out is a defining moment for us as a company, because our brand is based on the books we produce. After ten years, readers know what sort of book they'll be getting if it has an AiT logo on the spine," Young said.
Even so, an AiT-like publisher starting in 2009 rather than 1999 would look very different, out of necessity. "Starting the company today would require doing everything differently," Young continued. "The landscape and overall ecosystem is so different, now: more publishers, more printing options, webcomics, the challenging economy... all of those factors would require a very different way of thinking for a new company. Thankfully, we're well-established today so we can approach these challenges differently."