Oni Press Celebrates 20 Years with Romance, Adventure & Hip Hop Kung Fu

Oni Press kicked off its 20th anniversary panel Saturday at New York Comic Con with a present for everyone: Publisher James Lucas Jones announced that Megan Rose Gedris's webcomic Spectacle would be available for free as a webcomic, updating three times a week. The story will also be serialized as digital comics on comiXology, iBooks and other platforms.

Jones described the story as "Twin sisters who are dealing with a murder that has happened on the carnival they are on. There is a supernatural element to it and a steampunk element to it, just really engaging characters. The sisters are really charismatic, and you want to find out what's going to happen to them next."

After that, Jones turned his attention to the lineup of creators on the panel, introducing Ted Naifeh, whom he referred to as "one of our Oni Old Guard." Naifeh started out by describing his character Courtney Crumrin, the star of his multi-volume Courtney Crumrin series, as "a grumpy, angry, hostile, sullen, withdrawn little girl -- I thought obviously she would make a great main character for a comic book." When she learns her uncle is a warlock, Courtney steals his magic books and studies to become a witch, which suits her much better than her previous existence.

Naifeh has done a number of children's and YA comics but his current Oni series, Night's Dominion, is a more mature title. His pitch: "A thief, an assassin, a magic user, and a cleric walk into a bar to meet a bard who has got a plan to break into a dungeon to steal a treasure. Wackiness ensues. It starts out like a D&D campaign and ends up The Avengers."

Next up were Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota, the creators of the webcomic Johnny Wander and the graphic novel Lucky Penny. Oni recently released a thick volume of Hirsh and Ota's autobiographical Johnny Wander comics, titled Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us, and Jones had another announcement to make: Oni will publish Tales from Johnny Wander, a collection of fictional stories, as a standalone issue for Local Comic Shop Day. The cover features one of their characters, Cecilia, who starred in a series of short comics on the Johnny Wander site. "She was a girl who was put up on a blind date with Death," Ota explained. "And at the end of the date he kisses her hand and gives her the kiss of death, so her hand turns into a skeleton. He is so embarrassed he has done this that he leaves her alone for the next 100 years, and she essentially becomes immortal. She has kind of become a favorite of ours, and we try to sneak her into anything we can."

Death also makes an appearance in Sarah Graley's Kim Reaper, sort of: "Becca has a crush on Kim, but it turns out [Kim] is a part time grim reaper," Graley explained. "That complicates things." The trade paperback will be out in Feb. 2018. "This is not the last we will hear of Kim and Becca," Jones said. "They will be back in fall of 2018 as part of our big 20th anniversary publishing slate."

At the far end of the table was Yehudi Mercado, whose Sci Fu is an all-ages hip-hop Kung Fu story that was inspired by the documentary Scratch, which is about turntable artists. A young Brooklyn DJ is scratching alone one night when he sees lights outside his window—because it turns out his scratching is communicating with space aliens. They take him and his family to their planet, so he can learn the art of Sci-Fu. And at the core of it all, Mercado said, "He makes this terrible song for the girl he has a crush on and the robots find it. He's afraid they will play it for her, and if they do, he will die of embarrassment."

An audience member brought things full circle during the Q&A, asking, "What thread connects 1997 Oni to 2017 Oni?"

"When Joe Nozemack, our founder, started the company with Bob Shreck, he was really looking at how much comics was capable of and not realizing that potential, knowing that even if every comic was not for every person, that there was a comic for every person," Jones said. "We publish comics in a wide variety of genres for a wide variety of age groups -- everybody sitting here has a very distinct style and a very distinct voice -- but I think the one thing that unifies the whole line is that our books tend to be very character-driven and character-focused, and just really trying to appeal to an audience outside of the small superhero comic book direct market."

"While I think formats have come and gone, in terms of what has worked and what has been accessible to the audience, starting as more of a traditional comic book periodical publisher and then doing more in the black and white graphic novel space as the manga boom really opened up a new readership for comics, or our original graphic novels or original series that we do now, or even the licensed titles that we do now, a focus on putting the creators and characters first is the big throughline for the company from Day One to where we're at now," Jones concluded.

Standing: Yehudi Mercado, Ananth Hirsh, Yuko Ota, James Lucas Jones; seated: Sarah Graley, Ted Naifeh
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