Last year, Devil's Due Publishing saw it's G.I. Joe comics to continue to bring in new readers, launched "Voltron" to a sizeable amount of acclaim, reacquired the Micronauts license, launched lots of new creator owned projects such as "Kore" and broke away from Image Comics to become their own publishing house. So when CBR News asked Devil's Due President and Founder Josh Blaylock what's new in 2004, it was with the knowledge that it would be an ambitious year.
"What's not? We're launching an all new G.I. Joe series, 'Reloaded', in March, allowing even a complete newcomer to G.I. Joe to jump on with ease. Voltron is back with an all new ongoing series. 'Micronauts' is returning in March, with one of the most popular Micro-artists of all time, Pat Broderick. We're launching more creator owned projects. All this, and all now under our own publishing label."
While it may seem that 2003 proved extremely successful for Devil's Due, Blaylock admits his expectations are very high and very specific, so the former "G.I. Joe" writer can't help but want a bit more. "My expectations are always just a little bit higher than I'm able to achieve, and I'm convinced it's a genetic trait that always keeps me wanting for more - that's what keeps me going, but aside from that, we achieved tremendous growth in 2003. I think we definitely established ourselves as a serious player in the industry, and not a one trick pony. We expanded from just a couple of books to an army of titles, and showed just what we're capable of.
"A few of our promotional plans for our original properties didn't get executed the way we planned, and that set us back a bit, and I definitely about killed myself with all the conventions we did. It was a tough and stressful year. We were able to focus on these issues before the problems really became problems, though, and come back from a different angle in '04. 'G.I. Joe' remains a strong seller, though, and the 'G.I. Joe vs. Transformers' sales were through the roof, and 'Voltron' was another boost for us as well."
Blaylock also received a personal boost by grabbing his fate by the horns and taking control of it away from Image Comics, with whom he had a great relationship, but felt his time there had ended. "I've never been content with someone else controlling my destiny, so flying solo fits like a glove. It just feels more natural. From a business perspective, it's important to me to have access to the tools necessary to 'steer our ship.' I need to see orders as they're coming in, be able to talk to the distributor when necessary, decide which books get the most push, etc. That's what being your own publisher brings. Of course there are challenges that arise, but that's what makes life interesting.
"From a creative side, well, I still have to do all of my creative work on the weekends and late at night, because running the company requires too many little tasks and interruptions all day to be able to write or draw. Thankfully I have a very understanding girlfriend that lets me work at home, and knows how much all of this means to me. The business side requires creativity too, though - marketing books isn't always a cookie cutter formula, and thinking outside of the box is a necessity."
The big focus of Devil's Due in 2004 is to shed it's reputation as a company for "nostalgia" comics and flex it's unique creative muscles, thrusting forth with original material from a variety of genres. "I hope for 2004 to be a big year for our original characters. The success of our licensed titles is great, and something that I want to continue forever, but everyone gets into this to see their own babies in 4 color, and we're no exception. In February and April, I'll wrap up the first story arc for 'Misplaced.' All of the back issues are still available for order, by the way. The 4th issue finally sees Alyssa with her powers fully charged, and she's going back to her homeworld to kick some ass and get some answers.
"Our post-modern fantasy book, 'Kore,' wrapped in September, and is getting the Trade Paperback collection in February. Kore centers around the world of Abaddon, a world parallel to our own full of Wizards, Goblins, Elves and Trolls, whose magic has run dry, like a non renewable natural resource. An ancient Wizard planned to harness the power of our hero to replace the magic he so desired, and bring his wife back from the dead. A lot of people really began catching onto 'Kore' by the end, and they'll be happy to know that a spin off, 'WarStone,' is debuting in April.
"'WarStone' is a stand alone 48 page one-shot about Dylan Forrester, a half-elf who grew up as an orphan in NYC, and has no clue who he truly is. The evil Asmodeus, from Abaddon, has a new answer for this world's magical crises, and that is a full scale invasion of Earth, because we're sitting on a stock pile of it, and don't have a clue how to use it to defend ourselves. We're talking 'War of the Worlds,' or 'Independence Day,' but instead of ships and aliens we've got dragons, ogres, goblins and trolls attacking modern day Earth. Dylan's the only one who can harness the power of a jewel called the 'War Stone' and save Earth, but it's up to a secret organization called Cerberus to convince him. It's killer looking stuff, with art by Matt and Mike Cossin, written by yours truly.
"And lastly, we have 'Hack/Slash' by Tim Seeley and Stefano Caselli - another 48 page one-shot introducing Cassie Hack. She is the daughter of an undead slasher called the Lunch Lady, right out of your favorite horror flick. She was forced to kill her undead mom, a second time, and feels obliged to travel the country in search of other slashers. If a bunch of teenagers turn up dead in a single area under mysterious circumstances, you can bet Cassie, and her large, ugly brute of a friend, Vlad, won't be far behind looking for the supernatural menace responsible for it all. In the first one-shot, Cassie and Vlad go up against a cross between Jason from Friday the 13th and the horrors of Pet Cemetery."
Now Blaylock isn't promoting these series so aggressively because his primary goal is to market the works to someone in Hollywood- he's doing it because the independent, original comics scene is important to him and it's where he started work years ago. "It's something I've wanted since I was four years old, you know. It's just part of my creative nature, I guess. From a business side, it's very important to own your own properties if you ever want to be able to sell any merchandise rights, and gain revenues outside of publishing. I don't think I'll feel like I've truly fulfilled my lifetime dream, though, until I've created a series of characters who are popular at least on a mainstream comic book level, with success here and there in film, TV, or video games. Then I'll be able to make more comic books, and the cycle continues. I've seen a little bit of it with a character I created for G.I. Joe named Kamakura. He was made into a toy last year, and is a significant part of the Joe mythos in 2004. Now I want to achieve that with one of my own characters.
"It's also very hard to establish new characters these days, because comics is tougher than ever, and it just drives me crazy - eats away at the back of my brain like a... like a little brain nibbling monkey. It's like fate is just daring you to try, and I'll be damned if that'll stop me."
Though you may only associate Blaylock with "G.I. Joe," he's been involved in the creative industry for a long time. "Man, do you have all night? I started going to conventions asking artists for advice when I was 14. Before that I would write Disney and ask how I could become an animator. I began trying to get published when I was 16. I finally did right when I was out of high school. After my first trip to the Chicago Comicon in my 1980 $350 Volkswagen Rabbit, (that broke down half way there causing a 15 hour repair delay) and a botched agreement with a small publisher, I decided 'screw it' and self published. I've never looked back.
"Ah, the good old days.
"At the same time I attended a small two year art school, while spending most of my money that didn't go to tuition on printing bills and convention space. I put out a couple of black and white 'gems,' add small dose of sarcasm there, that I still get asked about to this day. The most fun was 'Penguin Bros.' about a group of teenage penguins with secret super hero identities who'd rather play video games than save the world. It was more like a zine with heavy influences from punk and ska music that I was really into at the time. Band interviews and things like that.
"Over a four year period I ended up working for a T-shirt licensing conglomerate named Velva-Sheen/Brazos, Inc. on properties like Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and various Disney licenses. I later moved onto a smaller, but similar company after that one went bankrupt, becoming too big for its own good. I helped them acquire, fittiingly, the Voltron license, and then TMNT, which were sold in Malls all over the country.
"So I just kind of fell into all of this licensing experience, but didn't think for a second about giving up on comics. I struck out on my own, forming Devil's Due in 1999. The company did a lot of work for Procter and Gamble, in Cincinnati, and random commercial art projects, while jumping slowly back into publishing with the black and white version of 'Misplaced.' I knew it wasn't worth investing in a big comic book launch until we really had something to knock people over the head with.
"Combining the licensing history, and the comic experience, DDP was able to lock in the G.I. Joe license, settled on Image Comics as our publisher, build tremendous hype on the Internet, and kicked some butt. I called every contact I had to get this thing covered in the press - fortunately I'd been around so long by then that a few guys who were nobodies in comic press had moved up in the world, and knew Joe was something to push. Knowing other companies would swoop in for every other 80's property, we locked up a couple others, and created the line of books everyone knows today."
Speaking of the 80's, Josh Blaylock has been "blamed" for "nostalgia" comics, those that some purport sell only because of childhood fondness for the properties and not because of the content, yet when superhero comics from the 80's like "Teen Titans" are revived or classic X-Men writer Chris Claremont is brought back to the franchise, it's seen as a step forward, which makes Blaylock laugh. "We're blamed because there's no doubt we started it. Part of that is being 'blamed' for bringing thousands of people back into comic shops for the first time in years, so I'll take all the fault they'll give me for that - haha.
"DDP had a bumpy road ahead when trying to bring back a comic like 'G.I. Joe' - a lot of people just didn't understand the passionate fan base behind it. Then everyone moves in and the big boys snatch up licenses without really understanding the characters, or not asking themselves if certain properties really should be brought back, and retailers are left with comics sitting on the racks. It's also hard for retailers to know what's going to stick and what's not, so they may order twice as many of a book than they need to, and thus you're left with a 'fad' that leaves a bad taste in their mouths. That's our challenge right now, as the 80's thing dwindles, but I think we're showing that quality can overcome this. We'll find out which books are here to stay - getting past issue 25 on Joe has to count for something.
"As for why the geek-elite blasting 80's books don't make the same cracks against a totally 80's retro book like the 'Teen Titans,' I guess the power of denial's the most amazing super-power of them all. I mean, all of a sudden Jericho's back? And Raven? Come on! That's as 80's as Boy George. I myself am a proud Teen Titans geek, though, and gotta rank Deathstroke the Terminator up there with the coolest of villains.
"In 2004, though, DDP will change its image from 'that 80's company,' although a piece of me will miss the notoriety [laughs]."
Destroying Blaylock's nostalgia reputation will be done by focusing on creator owned works and he offers up some of the inspiration behind those series, explaining that his works are derived from some powerful internal emotions. "Well, 'Kore' is actually very loosely based on my first self published work, Minotaur, which before that was one of many characters I created as a kid. It's nothing like that now, of course, but it'd be cool to bring ol' Minny back in the pages of 'Kore' some day. Me and the artist, Tim, are both fantasy fans, but wanted to do something different. I wanted to turn fantasy on its ear, and do something more deconstructionist. I always loved how Terry Brooks revealed that the fantasy characters in his Shannara novels were actually living in the distant future, and not medieval times. There's a lot of fantasy out there, but I guarantee you're not going to find a strip club where fairies dance on your table and goblins steal cars for chop shops in any of them except 'Kore.'
"'Misplaced' was originally a way to vent with a lot of narrow mindedness I was encountering as I transitioned into the corporate world from school. I also made quite a few friends at the same time who, vice versa from the usual 'bad kid' story, were good kids with overbearing parents looking for reasons to get them in trouble. It made me appreciate my parents more. Some of it came from religious fanaticism, others just control freaks. It just all hit at the same time, and I came up with this idea of a girl living in an entire world like this, who questions it all. For every innocent question she answers she's chastised, and eventually considered a danger. I'd be lying if I didn't say I didn't identify with part of this, though.
"It turns out that if allowed to develop and mature on her own, she will unlock an immense amount of powers that lay dormant in her, and that's what her superiors fear. For a fun adventure book with a bunch of exaggerated sub culture characters, it has a pretty heavy underlying metaphor."
If all these new ideas sound like the beginning of a "Devil's Due Universe" then you're not entirely wrong. "Actually, while we plan to continue these, and introduce new stand-alones like 'WarStone' and 'Hack/Slash,' I am working on a more connected universe for a line of projects down the road - that's about all I can say, now, but when we're ready, it'll be the biggest push you've seen us make yet," hints Blaylock. "We're still figuring out just what our identity is. It's an important thing to define, and especially hard for me because I'm caught between both the 'Waiting Places' and 'Bones' of the world and 'Batman' and 'Danger Girl.' I love the off kilter black and white stuff, which is why we picked up 'Radiskull and Devil Doll,' but at the end of the day, we're focusing on the higher profile mainstream books. Hopefully with that sense of 'Indie spirit' we'll be able to pull them off with a different feel than the rest of the companies out there.
"With every book we do, though, storytelling is paramount - both in the sequential art and the ease with which you can understand what's going on. That sounds like a complete no brainer, but it's one of the biggest offenses many companies make.
"We're really doubling down on making our books reader accessible too - it's very important for the entire industry."
You can't say the names "Joshua Blaylock" or "Devil's Due Productions" without thinking of another name: G.I. Joe. The three are all interconnected and with 2004 here, Blaylock plans to make fans scream "Yo JOE!" even louder… because, well, that he commands. "That perfect blend of fantastic 'super villains,' ninjas, and ######## military grunts will always have a special magic to it. There are so many characters with great backgrounds, and cool abilities and specialties. It's also something that almost everyone can place themselves into - no matter where you're from, there's a G.I. Joe character from somewhere near your hometown.
"When we went solo from Image we needed a big event, and starting the continuity from scratch, set aside from the regular series was something that I wanted to do for a long time, and it just seemed like the perfect time to jump on it. When we first got the license, that was the question. Rewrite the continuity, or start where the old series left off. I felt that at the time, there were so many unanswered questions that fans would want to explore them some more. We've had two years to do that, and continue to do so in the ongoing series, but it's time for a series that your teenage brother, or heck, even your Dad could pick up and read without knowing who the characters are. A fresh take on old favorites - moving the book away from that '80's' tag, and into 2004, with top notch stories to boot."
That fresh take is entitled "G.I. Joe Reloaded" and with the first specials trickling out in weeks, Blaylock has a good hold on how this group of super powered troops is more "realistic," despite characters named Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. "I'd say its more 'grounded,' for sure. Much credit for that is owed to John Rieber, who has done more military research for this than I've ever seen anyone do. This guy tries to make sure he even gets the Pentagon's security procedures right so a character can walk down the hall! It's just a great, incredible story. I feel like I'm getting the live action movie I always wanted as a kid."
Seeing as Blaylock can claim no ownership to "G.I. Joe," the writer and sometimes artist is at the mercy of license holder Hasbro to a degree, though Blaylock says the company has been great. "They have been very cooperative and supportive about letting us play with different continuities. I'd still do another book just for kids if we can work the distribution out for the mass market. It's truly a testament to the solid foundation of characters the property entails."
With Blaylock's departure from the core G.I. Joe series as of issue #25, young writer Brandon Jerwa has taken over (CBR News shared this news with you back in August) and the DDP founder says you haven't seen anything yet. "Jerwa is all about surprises. Long, slowly developing surprises that will come around to shock you. He has an amazing talent for making concise, short story arcs that are very new reader accessible while simultaneously introducing new characters and interweaving the overlapping arcs."
Switching gears slightly, there's also the matter of "Voltron," the comic based on the classic cartoon series (known in Japan as "Go Lion") that not only sold well but also, shock and awe, received positive feedback from critics. "'Voltron 'is a book that I am very, very proud of. I just finished reading the TPB, and afterwards just kind of sat back and went 'man, this is an all around great comic book.' I can give it to a 5 year old boy, my 19 year old cousin, or my Mom, and they'll all enjoy it. Hats off to Dan Jolley, Marie Croall, Mike Norton, Brett Smith, Clayton Brown and Clint Hilinski, and Dreamer. I feel the exact same way about the new story that's developing. E.J. Su's been a great addition to the series as well."
A big part of the "Voltron" success story is that with a brand new continuity, stories have been accessible to fans both new and old, not only is it accessible, it's also liberating. "It's a great experience, actually," gushes Blaylock. "You get to throw out everything you didn't like, and keep the real meat of the properties [smiles]. Where it gets difficult is when you really, really like something about the old stuff, but in your heart of hearts, you know that it's too convoluted or just plain silly for a newer audience. We're doing the same thing with 'Reloaded' that we did with 'Micronauts' and 'Voltron' - if we do half as good a job as Dan and crew, we'll be a great success."
Instead of asking for a 2004 Voltron teaser, CBR News asked him what a movie trailer for Voltron in 2004 would look like and learned some exciting news. "It would look like a movie that cost a lot to make!" laughs Blaylock. "I'd love to see it. If we have our way, there will be a Voltron animated series picked up in the coming months patterned after the comic book - keep your fingers crossed."
From the Comic Con International in San Diego to the Micro-Con in Minneapolis, the Devil's Due crew hits a lot of conventions and whether or not you like their products, there is one inescapable truth: they wear the biggest smiles at every convention. "That's because we vent all of our rage for each other at the studio," laughs Blaylock, sucker punching Mike Norton as the erstwhile artist gets some coffee. "Sometimes poor interns get caught in the crossfire - boy that's a mess you don't want to clean up. But to quote Triumph, 'I Keed! I Keed!'
"You've gotta have fun, right? Especially if you're making comic books. Publishing is definitely a high stress job, but we more than make up for it. That's one reason I loved Chicago so much, and moved the company here - there is too much fun to be had in this city.
"It's flattering that you mention that, though, and I've been complimented more than once that our 'crew' is a great group of people. I don't know what they do that's so special, besides just treating the fans like real people, and being cool with everyone. Maybe it's our MidWest origins. Pretentiousness doesn't go very far here - you've just gotta be who you are. And there's always the realization that we're 25 to 30 year old adults who still watch cartoons and collect toys - haha."
And you can always count on the Devil's Due peeps for some good laughs, especially at the conventions where their smiles can hide the great buddy tales. "Oh man are there," smiles Blaylock, trying to tell Dan Jolley and Clint Hilinski to not mention that incident. "It's a toss up between getting personal rock star use of a haunted castle in Orlando after hours, Lou Ferrigno telling Mike Norton he was going to kill him at the bar, or seeing a little 5 foot tall playmate breathing fire at a penthouse party in Pittsburgh years ago. No, wait - Tim Seeley topped all that by grabbing Jim Lee's ass, and many other random asses in Dallas last November. Fortunately he was stopped before accosting Dan DiDio [laughs]."